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William Kieft, 1638-1646
Director-General of New Netherland

William Kieft, the third Director-General of New Netherland, had a less than illustrious career in the Dutch colony in America. He is best known for his lack of diplomacy with the Indians that resulted in years of warfare and disruption to the entire colony, especially the settlement of Pavonia.

Kieft was a merchant while in Holland and was selected for his post in America with the charge to make Pavonia profitable. Soon after his arrival in September 1639, Kieft levied a tax on the Indians living in New Netherland on both sides of the Hudson River. The purpose of the tax in maize or wampum was said to provide the local Indians "protection" from rival Indian tribes. Kieft was seen by the Indians as an interloper. David F. Winkler, in his article "Revisiting the Attack on Pavonia," comments that Kieft earned the disdain of Indian chiefs with his 1639 decision to impose a tribute for Dutch security (6).

The Dutch already had problems with the Indians. Algonquians had killed two colonists and Kieft sought to place the suspects on trial under Dutch law. As relations with the natives deteriorated, Kieft formed a "Council of Twelve" to advise him on recurring incidents. In 1641, hostilities mounted and members of the Council petitioned Kieft to avenge the deaths of Dutch settlers. Winkler writes that despite claims of Kieft's war aggression, there are conflicting accounts of "Kieft's war" that bring into question "his enthusiasm for the anti-Indian expeditions" (10) that particularly affected Pavonia and "weakened the Dutch position in the New World" (3).

Kieft ordered an attack on the Indians at Pavonia, but he told his soldiers to spare the women and children. Eighty Dutch soldiers reached Pavonia on the night of February 25, 1643. The soldiers failed to heed the exemption and killed eighty men, women and children in a rampage. Winkler notes that while his orders were not followed, "Kieft thanked and rewarded the troops for their conduct" (11).

Eleven Indian tribes grouped for retaliation across New Netherland. According to local historian Joan D. Lovero, "Dirck Straatmaker from Caven Point ventured out to see what had happened and was struck by a poisoned arrow. . . .The [Cornelius] Van Vorst home at Harsimus was set ablaze and a child, Ide Van Vorst, taken as captive. The less unfortunate Dutch escaped to New Amsterdam, where they watched the fires that ravaged their homes and their crops. Pavonia was desolate" (10). Peace did not return to the area until a cease-fire agreement ended the hostilities in August 1645.

Settlers in the colony asked the Dutch West India Company to recall Kieft to Holland for an investigation of his actions. In 1647, Kieft died in a ship wreck off the coast of England and his papers were also lost at sea. He was never able to report his version of the war associated with his administration and redeem his name. The Indian hostilities convinced some settlers to return home to Europe; this hurt the confidence of the remaining settlers in the Dutch colony. Peter Stuyvesant arrived in 1647 to become the next director-general of New Netherland and help the failing settlement.

References:

Lovero, Joan D. Hudson County: The Left Bank. Sun Valley, CA: American Historical Press, 1999.
Savelle, Max and Darold D. Wax. A History of Colonial America. Hinsdale, Illinois: Dryden Press, 1973.
Winkler, David F. "Revisiting the Attack on Pavonia." New Jersey History. Fall/Winter 1998:3-15.

By: Carmela Karnoutsos
Project Administrator: Patrick Shalhoub